Preview: The Marlowe Arts Show’s ‘Othello’

Riona Millar 28 January 2020

The floor is covered with blood. The cast are all frantically washing their hands. The smell of golden syrup lingers, strangely, in the air. This is not your typical runthrough.

I have been privileged enough to attend the Blood Rehearsal for this year’s Marlowe Arts Show, a production of Othello directed by an ADC alumnus, John Haidar. (You can even check his Camdram).

While the cast climb into papery hazmat suits and wonder if they need to remove their socks to step onto the plastic sheeting that covers the floor, ASMs Hannah Lyall and Annabelle York and DSM Leea Smith are in the corner, doing mysterious things with strange equipment and golden syrup.

Image credit: Ban Jaemin

I know, logically, that this is a production of Othello, but as hands are scrubbed with bloodstained paper towels, and what, for all I know, could be a cauldron of blood, is stirred in a corner, this could certainly pass for a production of Macbeth.

It’s hard not to be transfixed, watching – I have never seen such enthusiasm over mouthfuls of fake blood spat onto plastic sheeting. Some beautiful fight choreography, accompanied by a violent spurt – or, occasionally, squirt – of blood from the carefully constructed bags of blood, a choreographed collapse to the floor… when a character’s throat is slit (sorry, spoilers, but I imagine you know whom I mean) perhaps three times over, just for the joy of watching the blood splatter the plastic, a great triumphant shout emerges from all our mouths. It is unlike anything I’ve ever previously been party to, and I believe the feeling is mutual.

Image credit: Ban Jaemin

After, when all the blood has been mopped up, bloodstained tshirts changed, hands scrubbed clean, we remark on how this very rehearsal is an example of the shift of standards in the rehearsal process for this show, as compared to an average ADC show. Sitting in a curious semicircle with Haidar flanked by Anna Wright, this production’s Emilia, assistant director Erika Price, Bilal Hasna (Iago), and Jamie Bisping (Roderigo), we discuss exactly what goes on in a Marlowe Arts Show, what makes it differ from any other production they’ve done, and how curiously the passage of time leaves its mark upon us all… so your standard preview content, really.

The Marlowe Society’s Arts Show has been running since 1907, with the aim of bringing to new audiences Jacobean and Elizabethan dramas that had been lost to the passage of time. A professional director is brought in, to work with the select handful of Cambridge thesps who make it through the audition process – and for this year’s cast, certainly, this progress was rigorous.

Image credit: Ban Jaemin

I have in fact just put my laptop away, thinking I’ve learned enough of the flesh and bones that make up a Marlowe Show, when John Haidar goes “Jamie! Tell Riona the swimming pool story!” The auditions and recall process took around 3 weeks, beginning at the very start of Michaelmas, and part of that process involved playing with the dynamics between potential actors.

In a recall with Jamie and Bilal, taking on their current roles of Roderigo and Iago, John and Erika had them pretend that Iago was on a lilo in the midst of a pool – cocktail with cocktail umbrella, snazzy sunglasses, the works – and Roderigo needed to convey a message to him, but was scared of water. This had to be enacted in a JCR, so I can only imagine the sort of floor-is-lava madness that ensued. Other scenarios involved the smoking area of Cindies, a bus stop, and doubtless numerous other spaces to let the interpersonal dynamics play out.

Image credit: Ban Jaemin

Play seems a crucial word to the whole process. From the blood splattered across the floor, to the adventures of the audition process, to the dance rehearsals that apparently took place just for the sake of expending some of the intense energy that often accompanies Shakespeare, this production of ‘Othello’ has clearly involved far more levity than one would expect.

With a lot of contemporary productions of Shakespeare, there tends to be an effort at a “take”. I remember, painfully, a dance version of Macbeth that I saw at the Young Vic. Thankfully, Haidar’s vision for the play was very much concerned with paring and stripping, peeling back the layers of ‘Othello’ to reduce it to something that depicts a deeply dysfunctional group of people in circumstances they probably shouldn’t have been placed in together.

As a younger director, thinking on his ADC days, Haidar felt he focused too much on what had already been done, creating something even more complex out of that. Returning to Shakespeare now, almost 10 years since his last ADC show is listed on Camdram, it’s very much about simplicity. The text of the play isn’t half as important as the process of creating and rehearsing – and it has very much been a collaboration with the cast, very much a joint effort between directors and actors.

Image credit: Ban Jaemin

Indeed I have never seen a cast so comfortable with one another, so supportive – every cheer or yell that follows ; a picture of the whole cast, hazmat suits zipped, hoods up, is taken for “Sir Ian!” They’re on first name terms now, of course. The Marlowe Society has been struggling with funding; Sir Ian McKellen, a Marlowe alumnus, is rumoured to be funding the whole show.

(On his tour of national and regional theatres to celebrate his 80th birthday, he stopped by the Cambridge Arts Theatre, and all the profits of that show in fact went to the theatre, supplying a new hearing aid loop and better access provision for disabled audience members. Big up, Sir Ian.) This funding, as well as the professional involvement with both John Haidar heading up directing, as well as professionals working on the tech team, is what gives the Marlowe Show that extra edge – and a blood rehearsal.

Image credit: Ban Jaemin

Clearly, Haidar’s process of casting and rehearsing has worked its magic – multiple times, the concept of safety and trust is brought up. Feeling safe and comfortable in the rehearsal room allows a cast to take risks, to move outside of and then reset the perameters of their comfort zones.

For many of the cast, this will be their last (or one of their last, at least) Cambridge show. I think it will be a fitting graduation. Anna talks of a moment in the bathroom, “Washing blood off our hands, we said ‘I’m going to be really sad when this is over’”.

I ask what they, as a company, have learned. Overwhelmingly, they have learned to be open: to new ideas, new ways of performing, of rehearsing, and of exploring their own boundaries when it comes to how to be an actor.

Anna remarks that Cambridge students have an overwhelming desire to know everything, have all the information readily available at any given time – but, from ‘Othello’, she has learned “the beauty in not knowing”. Although there is indeed a beauty in not knowing, I would still recommend knowing this cast, the dysfunctional family that Haidar sees underlying all of Othello, and the world they have built up for us in this production.

This year’s Marlowe Arts Show is on from Wednesday 29th January to Saturday 1st February. Tickets can be purchased here: https://www.cambridgeartstheatre.com/whats-on/othello